Supreme Court hears case on Navajo Nation water rights
The seven Colorado River basin states have been unable to agree on an agreement to conserve the massive amounts of water needed to keep the reservoirs stable. But more than 30 tribal nations also have legal claims to that endangered resource – including a dozen whose water rights have never been officially determined or settled.
The Navajo Nation argued before the Supreme Court on Monday that the government has a duty to fulfill its treaty rights, even as water levels recede.
In 1908, the Supreme Court ruled that when the federal government created the reservation, it also reserved enough water for tribal nations to sustain themselves. So why are some tribes still arguing their water rights in court?
“It’s a combination of racism and colonialism,” said Andrew Curley, a professor of geography at the University of Arizona and a citizen of the Navajo Nation.
Despite that 1908 ruling, he said policymakers continued to exclude tribes while dividing resources such as the Colorado River.
“The only way we can get the attention of state governments is through litigation,” Curley said.
The lawsuit is costly, said attorney Heather Whitman Run Snow, who helped settle her own tribe’s water rights in 2010. The Crow tribe had to hire lawyers, hydrologists and lobbyists.
“Very involved, very time consuming and, you know, somewhat speculative because you never can tell what the court is going to do, right?” He said.
Not all tribes can afford it. And without adequate water resources and infrastructure, tribal economies are suffering, according to Heather Tanana, an assistant professor at the University of Utah who is also Navajo.
“Because of the health cost, the time spent collecting bottled water, you know, premature death. There’s a real significant cost,” she said.
Before the Supreme Court on Monday, the federal government agreed that the Navajo Nation’s water right exists, but argued that it does not have a duty to enforce the right.
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